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Master keys at nearly every campus within the Tucson Unified School District have been lost or stolen, creating a significant problem, TUSD officials have acknowledged.

Minimal penalties for losing keys and limited oversight of the contractors who are issued keys has put Tucson’s largest school district at risk for theft.

Jeff Coleman, TUSD safety and security director, told the Governing Board on Tuesday night that the staff is proposing higher fees for missing keys — increasing the current $5 fee for any missing key to $250 for a grand master key, $100 for a building master key, and $25 for a classroom key.

The current $5 charge doesn’t even cover the cost of a replacement key, Coleman said. “It doesn’t offer any motivation to the person who has lost their keys to make every effort to find them.”

The board took no action on the proposal, which TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez still needs to sign off on.

“It’s an internal control issue and a matter of loss of assets,” said Robert O’Toole, head of the TUSD audit committee, which works to strengthen internal financial controls. “If we’re concerned with someone walking off with computers and other expensive equipment, one way to prevent it is locking the doors. If there is a question as to whether keys have been compromised, it seems to be a legitimate issue.”

Despite the security breach, there are no plans to rekey entire sites because of the high cost. But other safeguards have been put in place, Coleman said.

The problem was first recognized in 2009 — nearly two decades after TUSD instituted a rigorous key control policy, including the purchase of a system that was not susceptible to having keys duplicated without authorization and requiring all master keys for buildings and school sites be maintained in locked key boxes, according to a TUSD school safety report.

Despite those controls, it was determined that an unknown number of employees had keys made at the lock shop and there were no records kept of how many were ultimately distributed, the report said.

Today, more than 73,000 keys have been entered into a database, roughly 11,400 of which have been destroyed, lost or stolen.

Rather than rekeying the sites, TUSD has relied upon alarm systems to alert officials to after-hours entries, changing key cylinders on doors that allow access to buildings, or for a select few sites, the installation of a key card system, which can be deactivated by computer if a key is lost, Coleman said.

Most recently, TUSD switched the cylinder at Lineweaver Elementary School in midtown as a result of “non-force burglary-type thefts” that were believed to have been committed by a former employee in 2011, Coleman said. Items that were stolen include a wheelchair from the nurses office, trash bags and toilet paper.

Changing key tumblers, however is considered a short-term solution.

“Obviously, there are a lot of keys missing,” Coleman told the audit committee. “I believe the answer is going to lie in going to key cards. Mechanical keys will always be an issue. With card keys, it’s a couple of strokes on a computer and it’s turned off.”

The 29 schools that have converted to the card system were done under a bond program that recently ended. It is not clear when other sites will be upgraded or what the cost would be.

“We would need funding. We anticipate it would have to be prioritized,” said TUSD Chief Operations Officer Candy Egbert.

While efforts have been made to secure schools with lost master keys, of the 80-plus sites that have been compromised, 46 have not been switched over to a card system or had key cylinders changed, Coleman said.

The district has also implemented steps to increase oversight, including:

  • It was previously left to the discretion of principals who would have a master, which resulted in monitors and staff being issued master keys. As of 2011, employees requesting master keys must have a key slip signed by the principal and TUSD leadership.
  • Initially, maintenance boxes were placed at each site to allow facilities personnel access to master keys, but the system lacked accountability in terms of who had access to the lock box. Keys now have to be checked in and out during regular school hours.
  • Before 2011, there was no system in place to record if an employee had returned keys before leaving the school district. Human-resources workers have since initiated a checklist to determine if all property has been returned before final paychecks are issued.

The district is also working to hold contractors accountable. Some vendors have been issued keys that can access any building in the district but never returned them. If that were to happen today, TUSD would withhold a contractor’s final payment until all outstanding keys are returned.

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at ahuicochea@azstarnet.com or 573-4175. On Twitter @AlexisHuicochea

Education writer for #ThisIsTucson. Mom of one.